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The one thing that has to change in 2021… is leadership

These articles have been written by the first cohort of the Practice Makes Unperfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices. 

By Bola Ajose, Technical Operations Analyst at Permutive

We’re led from the day we’re born and when I reflect on the leaders who shaped me, they aren’t what society defines leaders to be.

Growing up, when I looked to my leaders at school and even in some religious institutions, these individuals were often so far removed from those they were meant to guide, inspire and help, that I couldn’t understand what their real purpose was. 

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to work with great leaders. Yet I have also seen great misuse of authority. Even thought-leadership has often felt like a scam: people using their privilege and power to get what they want. 

When I was university, I joined an organisation called AIESEC: a youth-led body focused on thoughtful leadership development and cross-cultural exchanges. Very few young people are given the opportunity to think about what kinds of leaders they want to become, so early in their development. 

During this time, I learned that leadership is more than a title; that leaders should be approachable, display empathy and ensure their team/followers understand their decisions and the reasons for their decisions.  The best leaders appear to be effortless. They don’t micro-manage, and they encourage people to be themselves. 

My Team Lead at AIESEC at the time – a passionate student called Ying – instilled these values in me every day, and is someone I’ll never forget. If you asked her, of course, she would say she didn’t do much, but with her ability to see the strengths in every single member of her team, she truly inspired a bunch of young future leaders who easily came together to make their boss proud. 

So, upon leaving university, I couldn’t wait to enter the real world of work and demonstrate these great skills I’d picked up! And to show that leaders aren’t made from dull workshops, or from books on how to manipulate people. 

But… many of my ‘leaders’ didn’t display these traits at all. They were dictators, with no time for the fresh talent. Archaic and hierarchical. They wanted to own and control their teams. If this was leadership, I didn’t want any part of it. 

As we leave 2020 behind and look to 2021 for some positivity, we’ve been forced to reflect on some of our ideals and ways of living, working and being. The elephant in the room is that we have to rethink leadership, regardless of the uncomfortable conversations and reluctant change this may inspire. 

Amazing leaders are everywhere, but most often we see them without these sacred leadership titles. It’s the lovely delivery person that always makes sure you get your packages on time and in good shape. It’s the pleasant waitress that goes out of her way to make your visit memorable, it’s the single mother working at the call centre solving your issue with such speed and care that you’re in a great mood for the rest of the day.  It’s the key workers who have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic with no sleep, average pay and intense stress. These are the leaders for whom quality is more important than power. The ones who deserve our praise and respect. 

An (anonymous) quote that always resonates with me is: ‘True leaders always practice the three R’s: Respect for self, Respect for others, Responsibility for all their actions’. 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that true leadership isn’t being a CEO or the next Prime Minister. It’s about taking ownership of your life, your work, having pride in what you do and knowing why you do what you do. It’s about celebrating and serving others, too. This may take a while to truly master but it’s a path that everybody can take, not just the selected few.


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